Mafia Dev Diary: Celebrating 18 years in the life

A look back at the Mafia series, which almost started on the other side of the law.

UPDATE - Mafia: Definitive Edition will now launch on September 25, 2020. Read more info here.

A version of this article was originally published in 2017 to commemorate the Mafia series' 15-year anniversary. Now, with the announcement of Mafia: Trilogy and the reveal of Mafia: Definitive Edition, we thought it'd be a great time to resurface this interview with Roman Hladík, who has been with the Mafia series since the very beginning and is now working on Mafia: Definitive Edition as Studio Manager and Art Director at Hangar 13 Games. You'll be hearing more about Hladík's work in the coming weeks, but for now, please enjoy this look back through Mafia series history.

Meet Roman Hladík. He's been on the Mafia team the whole time—over 20 years working on all the games in the series. For the first title, he was responsible for character art direction, and for Mafia II (and Mafia III) he oversaw art direction for the whole game. We asked him to remember back to those early days and talk about how the first game, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, originally got made, along with the definitive organized crime saga that followed.

"Our inspirations were classic gangster movies, and we tried to capture that atmosphere in a video game," Hladík says, "but the player was originally supposed to be a policeman going up against the Mob. When [writer and director] Daniel Vávra got in charge of script, he flipped the roles." That one move drastically changed how they would have to design the game—and suddenly, everything clicked. "From that point on, there was no looking back," recalls Hladík. "We had our plan."

Pictured above: the Mafia development team in 1999. "This picture was by our first offices in Brno," Hladík recalls. "People in the picture from left: Roman Hladík (tall guy), Daniel Vavra, David Semik, Jan Straka, Pavel Cizek, Dan Dolezel, Radek Marek, Pavel Prochazka, Tomas Hrebicek (baseball cap), Michal Beran, Vaclav Kral. Milas Saffek, Pavel Tretera, and some other team members are missing in the picture."

Back in 1997, the Mafia development team consisted of a mere five people, including Hladík. Five years later, when the first Mafia game shipped for Windows PCs, the team had grown to nearly 40 people. "Back then, we were creating a game that we wanted to play," says Hladík. "Honestly, we didn't know what to expect when the game shipped, because we were so close to the project and worked so hard on it for so long. Obviously, we hoped people would like what we made." And people did.

Seeing the great reception from critics and players alike, the team was instantly motivated to push ahead with a sequel. Daniel was already working on the script for the second Mafia game. But they quickly learned that because the first game was a success, the stakes for the second were higher right out of the gate, and a host of new challenges were there to meet them. Hladík jokes, "We had just launched this great game. The sequel should be a piece of cake, right?"

An early look at Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven. "That was my test scene in the original Mafia's game editor where I had placed all characters to review them and keep consistency," Hladík explains. "Although they look like they walk they were not moving, I just set an animation to them so they are not in a T-pose for the screenshot.

With the console generation jump to the Xbox 360 and PS3 era on the horizon, the team decided to move to a new, internal engine. Once again, the development team needed to grow to meet these new challenges. By the time Mafia II launched in 2007, there were nearly 200 people working on the game at two studios in Prague and Brno. The team's goal was two-fold: give players an intense and authentic experience, worthy of being a sequel to the first Mafia game, but also to take it a new direction. It was with this game that the Mafia franchise broke out to whole new audiences. Fans flocked to the gritty story, the incredible setting of Empire Bay, and Vito Scaletta as the anti-hero the players controlled. A fan favorite was born.

"With the third Mafia game," Hladík says, "we had the same conviction as at the beginning of the second Mafia game to further raise the quality bar." And the timing once again coincided with the console cycle change, so planning began for Mafia III to release on the PS4 and Xbox One.

Roman Hladík animating a cutscene in Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven. "Yes, we used a joystick," Hladík laughs. "It was our internal tech and we decided to use analog joysticks to control morphs for facial expressions. The joystick worked well because it has three axes of movement for mixing basic poses, plus an analog throttle we mapped for expressions—it went from happy to extreme anger. We also had an automatic animation generator which we used for pedestrians. Main characters, though, had hand-controlled animations. I would listen to the voiceover files several times, then animated the face via joystick in real time [in sync with the audio]. while listening. Needless to say, it was very time-consuming."

The team had a new vision with Mafia III, according to Hladík: "To provide a raw, less romantic view of the American underworld." You still have a criminal's perspective of the world, but this time you're pitted against the Italian mob. This fresh approach was the backdrop for a new tale, as Lincoln Clay uses the brutal efficiency of organized crime as a tool for his personal tale of revenge. "Just like the two previous installments, the third is based on a very strong story and, moreover, offers a larger, more open world than the previous titles," adds Hladík.

The Mafia series has always been about taking chances with powerful stories that reflect iconic eras in 20th-century America. The series takes you to authentic cities that truly feel inhabited, and the characters involved in this life of crime feel real. "The fans that came along with us on this 15-plus year racket motivated us to keep going," says Hladík. "For those of you who have been with us and played our games, the entire Mafia team wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you. More importantly, thank you for helping make Lost Heaven, Empire Bay, and New Bordeaux what they are today."

Roman Hladík and more members of the original Mafia team are still hard at work on Mafia: Definitive Edition, each bringing over 20 years of Mafia series experience to this new vision of Lost Heaven. You can see for yourself just how stunning this remaster is when Mafia: Definitive Edition is available starting September 25, 2020.

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